Not Home for the Holidays

The holiday season is going to be one of the hardest times of this extraordinary year. Getting together with family is what most of us do this time of year. We come together to enjoy food, drink, and each others’ company. But, with the pandemic these can become super-spreader events that put family members at risk.

Infectious disease experts tell us to wear masks and limit interaction with anyone you don’t actually live with. Some countries and states have encouraged limiting indoor activities to 10 people, or even 5 people, with no more than two households represented.

This creates a quandary when you are caring for an elderly parent. Your parent wants to have a traditional holiday with all of the normal celebrations. She wants to see grandchildren and perhaps great-grandchildren. She wants to enjoy gatherings with people sharing treats and food prepared in home kitchens. But, while anyone can come down with COVID-19, the risk for serious illness and potentially death is highest for people over 65 who may have chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, obesity or respiratory conditions.

We think our family members are safe and the risk comes from interaction with strangers. But some of the worst spreader events have been weddings and funerals. Adding any travel, especially air travel, increases the risk for everyone.

Every part of the country has different risk levels. The pandemic is spreading so quickly these days that no place is very safe. Some states will require two weeks of quarantine if you have traveled to a high risk state. With almost every state experiencing rising cases this seems a good practice for any interstate travel. First, to self quarantine for two weeks before traveling, and then again for two weeks when you return. This protects you and everyone you come into contact with along the way.

So what’s a person to do? Should you plan family gatherings and despite the risk? Is there a possibility that this will be your parent’s last holiday season? Which is worse: risk COVID transmission, or protect your parent from exposure?

These are tough decisions for anyone to have to make. Here are a few alternative suggestions:

  • Have a virtual dinner or party. Set a time for your meal or party. Connect family members using something like Zoom. You can eat together, talk together, even sing Christmas carols together. But you will be protecting everyone by keeping distance. (Just a note: it can be challenging to connect via a laptop to multiple people in one location. Unless people move closer to the camera when speaking the image and sound can be challenging to see and hear.)
  • Have a remote holiday gathering without trying to coordinate a multi-location meal.
  • Have small holiday events so it is easy to keep the right social distance (the standard six feet) between everyone. This means of course no hugs or kisses, and no group singing (because of the increased aerosolization into the air). Also everyone who comes should be required to wear a mask and there should be easy access to hand washing. Of course everyone will need to remove their masks to eat, so try to sit far apart. This makes it important to know that everyone present has been following safe practices at least two weeks prior to your event.
  • If you are in a location with warmer weather, plan to celebrate outdoors. If you use a tent outdoors, be sure to allow open sides. The better the ventilation the safer it is.

Being a family caregiver anytime is hard work and you can feel like you are very alone in dealing with all the day to day challenges. One of things we are all discovering this year is how helpful virtual connections can be to lessen the feeling of loneliness. Connecting to other family and friends can boost your energy and provides something to look forward to, especially when you do it with some regularity.

If you know that two households are both following good protective practices with masks, hand washing and social distancing you can be more comfortable about bringing them together. There are numerous examples of this. Your parents’ home and your home may be considered a “bubble” together.

You might be surprised how valuable virtual connections can be for even very old people. This past summer my family had a Zoom birthday celebration for my 95 year old uncle. And I have seen quite a few other examples of people well into their 80s and beyond who find value in virtual connections. There is something about seeing people that is better than just hearing them in a phone call.

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